Many Catholics today try to find solace in their suffering by imposing meaning upon their experiences. The desire to make sense of the chaos of the modern age often leads people to attempt to customize their lives and the lives of others to suit their personal notions of “meaning” and their preconceptions of the Christian life. When we do this, however, we take the truth in its fullness—as mysterious and impenetrable as it can be—and supplant it with our preferences and personal tastes. There are many signs of this in the Church today: parish shopping, liturgy wars, “intentional communities,” the Eucharistic coherence debate.
The Second Vatican Council sought to bring the fullness of Catholic teaching to bear on the unique plight of modern man, who had just prosecuted its second gruesome world war in less than a few decades. In the face of new, recalcitrant ideologies and popular movements of freedom and liberation, the Council fathers empowered the people of God to thrive in a new era with robust teaching centered around the laity. In those teachings, the Council Fathers warned the Church about these dangerous movements and ideologies. As they wrote in Gaudium et Spes,
Thinking they have found serenity in an interpretation of reality everywhere proposed these days, many look forward to a genuine and total emancipation of humanity wrought solely by human effort; they are convinced that the future rule of man over the earth will satisfy every desire of his heart. Nor are there lacking men who despair of any meaning to life and praise the boldness of those who think that human existence is devoid of any inherent significance and strive to confer a total meaning on it by their own ingenuity alone. (10)
To “confer a total meaning” on human life “by their own ingenuity alone” is a good description of the postmodern sensibility. Today, whatever confidence we once had in humanity’s ability to use reason to discover truth and goodness has been shattered. At the same time billionaires are blasting off to space and our lives are constantly transforming through technology, we also see the increasing division in our societies, ongoing global violence, and a steep decline in faith (at least in the West). Furthermore, social media has opened a world of truly limitless possibilities where, as one author put it, “experience is the final arbiter of truth.”
To truly evangelize well in postmodern society, the Church cannot simply impose meaning for others to live out, as if we could control minds and absolutely force people to act according to pre-established norms. This only plays into the same postmodern ideologies that have made evangelization so difficult. The Church errs when we only provide others people with a clear set of rules to follow and expect it to foster conversion or a deeper faith. Such simplistic ideas about evangelization may reduce anxiety and eliminate the burden of discernment, but these strict paths lack Christ. Instead, the Church must strive to re-propose the kerygma, the essential message of Christianity in its unadulterated form, for the mercy of God takes root in the soil of human suffering and blossoms in a wholly unique life lived in the light of Christ.
This echoes Pope Francis’s August 11 General Audience address when he drew attention to St. Paul’s criticism of the fundamentalist missionaries to the Galatians. He explained how these missionaries sought to “set aside the encounter with Christ” while giving “greater importance to the commandments.” The institutional Church and the world around us are undoubtedly a frequent source of confusion and anxiety, but the more we attempt to control and enforce order in our lives and the lives of others, the more we risk elevating the commandments above the encounter with Christ. Christ is the one who speaks to us and guides us through prayer and discernment. “Realities are greater than ideas,” Pope Francis has reminded us throughout his papacy, and nothing is more real than an encounter with the living God.
The experience of grief illustrates well the fundamental choice that faces us today. Speaking personally, when my wife and I lost our son during pregnancy, we were devastated. In that initial moment of grief, I was tempted to rationalize, to control, to explain the loss as a consequence of certain behaviors or choices. We kept asking ourselves, “Why did this happen?” We heard well-meant but poorly worded consolations such as, “There must be a reason” or “He’s in a better place now.” Is my child in heaven? Can I have hope in his salvation?
All these questions and rationalizations speak to a fundamental desire to know, to control, to understand. But here is the key problem: these explanations are imposed on the loss from without. Coping strategies like denial, anger, and rationalization are employed to help protect ourselves so that we only bear what we are able at any given time, but eventually, we who mourn must learn to sit with the pain and suffering as the grace of God unfolds in our lives in varied and unforeseen ways.
When we ask the question, “Why do we suffer?” the only appropriate response is that God sent his only Son to suffer, die, and rise from the dead so that we might have life in him. It does not exactly answer my questions, but it is a deeper consolation than any human explanation could ever provide. As St. John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris, “Love is the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery.”
This is the key difference and the “choice” offered to us in our postmodern society. Either we seek to control our painful experiences and impute meaning to them, or we allow our experiences to unfold in time, trusting that God is there in the midst of our suffering. St. John Paul continues,
Suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.
If Christians are denied the space and support to find the love of God despite their dissatisfaction with the world, they will learn to either create their own satisfying or meaningful experiences or uncritically accept the explanations of others. Like Job’s friends in the Old Testament narrative demonstrated so well, there is a constant temptation to mediate our negative experiences through our understanding of the world as we think it should be. Thus a vicious cycle begins: the more we suffer, the more we rationalize, and the more we become removed from what is real. Job rebuffed his friends, but in the end, he too needed to be brought back to reality, his own explanations silenced in the face of the power and majesty of God.
It happens too frequently that people disassociated from reality are primed to accept false teachings from charismatic leaders who neatly diagnose the problems in the world, provide a solution, and encourage people to take action to effect that solution. In American politics, QAnon is a strangely powerful force. But even within Catholicism, various masculinity/feminity programs and traditionalist/progressivist online communities do this all the time. These groups and programs are frequently opposed to real evangelization, insofar as they lead people to suffer without Christ, suffer without being truly joined to his act of redemption through prayer and discernment.
In our postmodern era, closeness becomes essential to an authentic process of discovering Christ amid human suffering. While human persons cannot perfectly empathize or provide an easy solution to suffering, we can support each other and be patient with one another through our suffering. For those suffering from miscarriage or stillbirth as we did, the pain is often hidden and remote—an unseen child lost. Through the support and encouragement of other compassionate parents, we experienced the loving face of Jesus in a time of great grief. Let us think also of the divorced and remarried, of addicts, of refugees, of the homeless or homebound, and so many others suffering from pain, both visible and invisible.
We Christians must strive to advance true justice in the world, aware we cannot entirely relieve the world of suffering. It is in our closeness with each other that we can magnify the power of God in the hearts of one another, and help to ground us all in the enduring reality of his perfect love.
Image: Léon Bonnat, “Job,” Wikimedia.